Unpopular (Vegan) Opinions

1. Nutritional yeast does not taste like cheese.

Sometimes I feel like the whole vegan internet is playing a massive joke on me. Every day I see a recipe on instagram for a “cheese sauce” that’s just cashews and nutritional yeast, and there are always a hundred comments raving about how it tastes just like the real thing. Friends, I have attempted such recipes, and they’re not good. They certainly don’t taste like cheese.

Don’t get me wrong, I like nutritional yeast. In the right context it can provide a nice savory flavor, and a small amount in pasta sauce slightly resembles the umami of parmesan cheese. But a pile of nutritional yeast on top of your pasta looks, smells, and tastes bad.

I think nutritional yeast is much more similar to soy sauce than to cheese: both have sharp savory flavors that need to be handled carefully. In fact, the two often go great together. Gena’s Lentil Keftedes are to my mind the perfect example of nutritional yeast done right–the sharpness of the yeast is complemented by the soy sauce and balanced by the walnuts and lentils. I also like to add a few teaspoons of both soy sauce and nutritional yeast to Nisha’s Lentil Bolognese for a sauce that’s meaty instead of sweet.

2. Soy milk is the One True Milk.

I’m glad that there are so many milk options available to vegans these days. I’ve had fun trying cashew, almond, coconut, pea, and macadamia milks–what a time to be alive! But I’m sort of baffled that there’s a market for all these things, because soy milk is the best milk replacement far and away.

As far as I understand these things, it’s the best substitute for cow’s milk nutritionally since it has almost the same amount of protein. I guess pea milk has protein too, but at too high a cost–you can definitely taste the protein extract. Soy milk also has a rich texture, comparable to 2%, and is available everywhere–it’s the Schelling point of nondairy milks.

But most of all, soy milk tastes really good. Even unsweetened, unflavored soy milk has a light vanilla flavor that’s perfect in cereal and baked goods. Most of the nut milks I’ve tried have the right texture but a bitter, unpleasant flavor. Oatmeal cooked with almond milk tastes flat and watery.

I will admit two caveats here: one is that soy milk is a bit rich for drinking, depending on what you’re used to. Secondly, soy milk is surprisingly bad in savory dishes like soups or stews, because the sweet/vanilla-y flavor comes through the other ingredients. I like almond milk for drinking (mainly because it’s so widely available) and cashew cream or culinary coconut milk for cooking.

3. Tomatoes are holding you back.

When I first started cooking for myself out of college, everything was tomato-based. My main dinner was marinara sauce with a bunch of veggies in it, and I rarely made a soup or stew without a few cans of crushed or diced tomatoes. It was an easy rut to get stuck in because tomatoey things taste great! I love pasta with red sauce or tomato-based soups.

But tomatoes have the unfortunate tendency to swamp other flavors. Over time I realized I was sick of all my food half-tasting like tomatoes. These days I’m better at using other ingredients to provide flavor and texture. And I’m hesitant to put a tomato anywhere it’s not completely required, because I know that it will take over and make the whole dish taste generic.

Savory breakfasts, no eggs required

Every non-vegan has a handful of foods that they think they could never give up–cheese is a common example. Admittedly, these worries are sometimes valid: I’ve been vegan for almost a year and I still crave fish every so often. But sometimes the difficulty is purely imaginary. You may even find that removing certain ingredients from your rotation causes you to discover foods you like even better.

That’s how it was with me and eggs. Before going vegan I couldn’t imagine savory breakfast without eggs. My usual breakfast is oatmeal with fruit and nut butters, but if I’ve had a slice of cake or too much alcohol (OK, any alcohol) the night before, I always wake up very opposed to anything sweet. In those cases, eggs were once a life-saver, especially since they’re so easy to prepare. Giving up eggs has forced me to be creative with my savory breakfasts, but this creativity has paid dividends.

I started in what seemed like the most obvious place: tofu scrambles. My first attempt was this southwest tofu scramble from Minimalist Baker, pictured above, and this is still a favorite. I follow the recipe pretty much as written, except I like to keep the tofu in large pieces and to keep it in the pan long enough to crisp a bit before adding the greens. Sometimes I throw in some pinto or black beans, and idea I picked up from Gena’s black bean scallion scramble recipe. This recipe makes a delicious breakfast or lunch, along with some avocado, a tortilla, and salsa.

Once I had made this recipe a few times, I started changing up the spices and throwing in whatever veggies I had on hand. I also started experimenting with adding cooked rice or quinoa directly to the scramble, as in this recipe. At some point you’re blurring the line between tofu scramble, fried rice, and stir-fry, and that’s all good. Tofu scrambles are very adaptable and forgiving–I don’t think I’ve ever made one and not liked how it turned out. I would say this is one advantage tofu has over eggs — it’s more versatile and mixes better with grains and a wider variety of veggies.

If you like, you can also nix the add-ins and just try to emulate the texture of scrambled eggs, pictured below. Though it’s been a while since I’ve had actual scrambled eggs, I have been quite happy with my efforts in this direction. The basic idea is to crumble some medium-firm or silken tofu and add it to a lightly oiled pan or skillet over medium heat. Mush it around until it gets less damp, and sprinkle on black salt (or just normal salt) and a tiny amount of turmeric–just a shake or two. Keep frying and stirring until the turmeric is evenly dispersed and the tofu has reached your desired level of done-ness: you can stop early for a fluffier scramble, or keep going until it browns a bit. At the end, I like to grind on a bunch of black pepper. The result has a similar satisfaction-factor as scrambled eggs but is more protein-y and more voluminous, all the better for making you feel healthy after a night of bad decisions.

Now scrambled tofu is great, but savory oats are a revelation. I’ve been hearing about them online for ages, but I only tried them out a few weeks ago, and I was really surprised at how great they are. My basic recipe starts with 40g serving of oats: I like oat bran, but any type should be fine. I mix the oats with 1 tablespoon of nutritional yeast, 2 shakes of paprika, 2 shakes of garlic powder, 4-5 shakes of onion powder, and salt and pepper to taste, and then cook in 1 cup of almond or cashew milk according to package directions. A dash of soy sauce is also nice but not required. If you’re cooking on the stovetop, you can also stir in greens in the last few minutes, as in the picture at the top of this post. Recently I’ve been topping my savory oats with either sauteed oyster mushrooms (!) or Hodo tofu burgers (!!).

A final strong candidate for vegan breakfast is just whatever you made the night before. Admittedly, my stomach is a bit more picky in the morning than later in the day and tends to prefer things that aren’t too difficult to digest. I find that bean-y and lentil-y things are more appetizing in the morning than mock meats or huge piles of veggies. Some foods I like later in the day, like hummus, are absolutely off-limits as breakfast. Keep an open mind, though–beans and greens or dal can be a really great breakfast when you’re in the mood!

Blend Now, Think Later

For as long as I have been lurking on food blogs, I have been hearing about high-speed blenders, but I never quite understood what all the fuss was about. High-speed blenders are pricey, plus fancy kitchen appliances are always a nuisance to clean–I always assumed I was better off without one. But a few months ago I moved into a house with a glorious 64-oz Vitamix 5200* and I’ve come to see how very wrong I was. I now use the blender every day, multiple times if I’m cooking for the house.

Carrot-ginger-miso dressing is as simple as putting carrots in a blender: see this recipe.

The main thing to know about the Vitamix is that it’s not really a blender, it’s a small car. It obliterates ice cubes, vegetables, nuts, and anything else you stick in there. A while back I made the mistake of trying to stir the contents of the blender with a spatula while it was running and it sliced through the spatula like it was nothing. The Vitamix can turn anything into a rich and creamy sauce.

This is especially great for vegan cooking because it means you can turn a handful of cashews or almonds to a rich cream without any pre-soaking. This past week I used the Vitamix to make a basil cream sauce by throwing in about 2 oz cashews, a small bunch of basil, a clove of garlic, a splash of lemon juice, a pinch of salt, and a splash of water. The result was a sweet, rich, pesto-y dressing. I then blended some of it with cooked edamame for a pea pesto-like spread that went great with pasta. I mixed the rest with some extra firm tofu for a really delicious basil-tofu ricotta.

You can do something similar with cilantro, switching the lemon for lime and adding in a jalapeno and same white vinegar to taste. The process is pretty flexible–if you start with fresh herbs and a handful of nuts and then add acidic ingredients to taste, you will probably wind up with something delicious. Whether it turns into a spread or a dressing depends on how much liquid you add. Try stirring in a tablespoon or two of olive oil at the end for extra richness, but don’t blend the olive oil as it can turn bitter.

Cilantro sauce goes great on fried tofu and crunchy veggies.

I also love using the Vitamix for creamy soups. No disrespect to my immersion blender–immersion blending is one of life’s great joys. But I think that using a stand blender allows for a more interesting textures, since you can make half of the soup extremely creamy and leave half unblended. If you use a stick blender you have less control and are more likely to wind up with an intermediate texture.

Recently I’ve been using the blender as a time-saver for chopping aromatics. I’ve always had issues with ginger–it’s hard to find a grater that processes it well, and I really hate the fibrous texture of ginger chunks. I also hate chopping hot peppers, since I need to wear gloves and goggles and wipe everything down after (to avoid the dreaded burning hands). Any easy solution is that if I’m cooking with garlic, ginger, and peppers, I just chop them all roughly and throw them into the blender with a tablespoon or two of water. Then I fry the resulting paste whenever I would have fried the aromatics. This works especially well if you’re also cooking with onions: if you add the onion first and blend until it forms a paste, you don’t have to add any additional water. Then you can add the aromatics and blend until there are no visible chunks of ginger or pepper. This saves chopping time (especially if you are cooking 2x or 3x the recipe), and it creates a thick, gravy-like texture which is ideal in dishes like chana masala. I’m not saying it would be appropriate for every dish, but it’s great for many curry or stew-like things.

Blending the onion and aromatics helped thicken this peanut stew.

For what it’s worth, the Vitamix a lot more convenient than I had anticipated. It’s actually not too bad to clean–unlike a food processor, there’s only one or two major parts, and as long as you use the blender for things that are fairly liquid-y it’s not too hard to clean off the blades. (If there is gunk down there, you may be able to get it out by blending some soapy water.) The Vitamix always sits on the counter next to our stove so it’s pretty convenient, which is probably a large part of why I use it so often. I’ve found that using a blender tamper makes the process simpler–you can use less liquid and you don’t have to pause to scrape down the sides so often.

In summary: Blend! Blend early and blend often. Blend for the animals. Blend for the environment.

Truly it is said that behind every great vegan is a vitamix.

*I swear I’m not being sponsored by Vitamix. This is the model my house has. Probably most of what I’ve said applies to other high-speed blenders as well.

Vegan Sick-Person Food

I’ve had a bit of a stomach bug this past week, so I didn’t cook anything exciting. In fact I didn’t even enter the kitchen, because I was self-isolating in case my symptoms were actually sneaky COVID. (I’ve since tested negative twice, so no worries!) Therefore I’ve just been eating toast, ramen, and frozen things, kindly delivered to my door by my boyfriend. On the bright side, I have discovered some exciting new low-effort vegan foods.

Recommendations

1. Mi Goreng Stir-Fry Noodles — definitely the sick-person-food winner. I guess I’m a food snob because I had forgotten how delicious packaged ramen can be. The fried onion flavor was fantastic. The package recommends stir-frying, but J just brought these to me ramen-style and I added the seasoning packets, which was ideal for rehydrating when sick.

2. Sweet Earth Big Sur Breakfast Burrito — I was impressed by the flavor of these burritos. I guess the dominant taste was paprika, but it was well-balanced by the overall sweetness and richness of the filling. The texture was also nice, although I could have lived without the little chunks of seitan. I thought there was too much wrap and not enough filling, but it wasn’t as much of an issue as with the Amy’s Samosa Wrap (below).

3. Hodo Tofu Veggie Burgers — I can’t believe I haven’t tried these before. They were so, so satsifying, with a firm, meaty texture and a browned, crispy exterior. They definitely tasted tofu-y, so you probably won’t like them if you’re not a tofu fan, but if you are, I recommend you get some as soon as possible. I can see cutting these up for wraps and adding them to stir fries as well as eating them burger-style. I’m super excited to try the rest of Hodo’s prepared tofu options.

4. Gardein Be’f and Country Vegetable Soup — When I was little I really liked Progresso soups, especially Beef and Barley, but I was always weirded out by the meat in them. It wasn’t an ethics thing (alas), I just figured that they were probably very low-quality cuts of meat and likely contained bits of veins or tendons or organs. I am pleased to announce that Gardein’s Be’f and Country Vegetable soup is just as delicious as the meaty soups I used to love, without the ick-factor and ethical issues.

Dis-Recommendations

1. Imagine Creamy Broccoli Soup — This soup tasted more like rubber than broccoli. Nor did drinking it give me a healthy feeling, since the texture was more starchy than vegetable-y. Broccoli soup in general is a borderline food, and getting it from a box was just the wrong call.

2. Amy’s Indian Samosa Wrap – Don’t get me wrong, the filling was quite tasty, but there was so little of it and so much tortilla that the entire experience was mainly frustrating. Just made me wish I could run to the kitchen and make my own aloo mattar!

Broccolatkes

Broccoli latkes may sound absurd, but actually, they are essential! They are imperative! Once you make them you will realize that they are the savory pancakes you have needed all along. You can serve them with any tangy condiment you like, but they were especially amazing with pesto Bitchin’ Sauce, an almond-based creamy sauce with basil.

The main ingredient in broccolatkes (besides broccoli) is Just Egg. I’m not wild about Just Egg scrambles–they taste too pancake-y for me to take the place of eggs, plus tofu scrambles can be pretty glorious in their own right. But Just Egg is a perfect binder for all manner of veggie fritters. Just combine a few cups of mostly-cooked veggies, a bit of flour, spices, and 1/2 cup of just egg and fry them up.

Broccolatkes

  • 2 heaping cups raw broccoli florets
  • 1/2 cup Just Egg
  • 3 T flour (I used brown rice flour; I anti-recommend chickpea flour as it’s too bitter for this recipe)
  • 1 small clove garlic, crushed
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp onion powder, more to taste
  • Red pepper flakes to taste
  • 2 T lemon juice
  • Water to thin
  • Oil to cook

Steam the broccoli any way you like–for this recipe I just microwave it for a minute or two in a covered bowl with a bit of water. Chop the broccoli into small pieces and then stir in remaining ingredients. Thin with water if necessary to achieve a pancake-batter like consistency. Cook like pancakes, either in a good non-stick pan with spray or a small amount of oil, or with 1-2 T oil in a regular pan. Enjoy with lemon juice and your favorite tangy condiments.

The Saags of Quarantine

I totally missed the memo about sourdough, so instead I’ve spent quarantine attempting to master saag tofu–a vegan version of the popular Indian dish saag paneer. I must have made some form of saag tofu at least 20 times since last March, and I’m not sick of it yet.

My experiments have been based on two recipes. The first is Madhur Jaffrey’s saag paneer, which I made with J before going vegan. This is a simple recipe with few ingredients and no spices, except to dust the paneer. To make it dairy-free, I replace single cream with cashew cream or coconut cream. The second is Nisha Vora’s palak paneer with tofu, which is more complex: there are whole spices tempered in hot oil as well as ground spices, tomatoes and onions in addition to spinach, and many stages.

I’ve found that Madhur Jaffrey’s recipe is more what I’m looking for. This may be a matter of personal preference, but I like my saag to be intensely spinach-y, and tomatoes and onions just get in the way. I also found that adding tempered spices gives the dish a toasty taste, which works nicely in dal but not so nicely in a saag dish.

As for the “paneer,” I’ve tried boiling, baking, frying, and adding it raw. I even tried marinating the tofu in a lemon-miso mixture, which gave it a nice appearance but had little effect on the taste. At the end of the day, I prefer just pressing and cubing some tofu and then stirring it in a minute before serving. I don’t recommend letting the tofu cook for too long, as it will get soggy sitting in the spinach mixture.

Spice-wise, the most important thing seems to be using ample ginger. Err on the side of ginger! It tastes great and it tenderizes the spinach. Garlic is less important. I prefer serrano peppers to jalapenos in this dish, but instacart being what it is, I’ve had to use jalapenos many times and the result is far from terrible. As in the Madhur Jaffrey recipe I prefer to add no dry spices, except that I’ve taken to stirring in a few tablespoons of fenugreek leaves right at the end. You could easily leave these out, though.

In summary, here is the recipe I’ve converged upon. I really like it, but I don’t doubt that it could be improved. Let me know if you have any suggestions!

Saag Tofu

  • 1 inch knob of ginger, peeled
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 serrano pepper, coarsely chopped
  • Neutral oil
  • 1 lb spinach (I usually use frozen)
  • 1/2 tsp salt, more to taste
  • Cashew cream or coconut cream, to taste
  • 1-2 T fenugreek leaves
  • 1 pkg extra-firm tofu, pressed and chopped into 1/2-1 inch cubes

Place ginger, garlic, and pepper in a blender with a few tablespoons of water and blend into a smooth paste. Heat a bit of oil in a medium-sized pot and add the paste. Fry for a few minutes. Add the spinach and stir to incorporate. Cover and cook for at least 20 minutes (if using frozen spinach, the 20 minutes should start after all the spinach is defrosted) or more if you have the time–I’ve cooked it for up to an hour and it seems to just get better over time. If you cook for a long time, you made need to add a few splashes of water of cream to prevent the spinach mixture from drying out.

5-10 minutes before you want to eat, add the salt and then pulse the spinach in a blender until broken down and creamy but not too smooth–err on the side of under-blending or you may wind up with a “smoothie” texture. You can also blend the spinach in the pot with a hand blender. Return the spinach to the pot and heat it up again on medium-low heat. Add the fenugreek and cream to taste and stir to incorporate. Add the tofu and stir gently to cover the tofu with the sauce. Allow the tofu to cook for 2-3 minutes but do not do any additional stirring, since this will break up the tofu. Serve immediately.